beijing smog air pollution

Beijing smog levels breach WHO guidelines by 100 times

Pollution levels in Beijing and other northern Chinese cities are currently exceeding recommended limits by 100 times according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

A smog alert was first raised on Saturday and the levels of pollution have not subsided since then.

In Shijiazhuang, capital of northern Hebei province, levels of PM 2.5, fine particulate matter, soared to 1,000 microgrammes per cubic metre, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

The WHO guideline states that the annual average should be no more than 10 microgrammes.

In nearby Tianjin city, authorities grounded dozens of flights for a second day and closed all highways after severe smog blanketed the port city, one of more than 40 in China’s northeast to issue pollution warnings.

PM 2.5 levels hit 334 microgrammes per cubic metre in Tianjin as of 4pm local time, according to local environmental protection authorities.

China announced a massive £29bn rail project last month connecting Tianjin with Beijing and other nearby metropolitan areas that could encourage inhabitants to lower the use of personal vehicles. 

Twenty-two cities have so far issued red alerts, which is the highest possible air pollution warning, including top steelmaking city Tangshan city in Hebei and Jinan in coal-rich Shandong province.

Half of all vehicles have been banned from the streets, and factories, schools and construction sites have been ordered to close in an attempt to alleviate the smog.

Red alerts are issued when the air quality index (AQI) is forecast to exceed 200 for more than four days in succession, 300 for more than two days or 500 for at least 24 hours. The AQI is a different measure from the PM 2.5 gauge.

The alert, the first this year, is currently set to last until Wednesday and has been partially caused by ramping production from coal-fired heating plants in an attempt to stave off the worst of the harsh winter in the North.

Pollution alerts have become increasingly common in China’s northern industrial heartland, especially during winter when energy demand - much of it met by coal - skyrockets.

AQI readings at some monitoring stations in seven cities in Hebei peaked above 400 on Monday, with Shijiazhuang and two other cities breaking above the 500 limit, Xinhua said.

Anything above 300 is considered hazardous by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

The National Meteorological Centre warned on Monday on its microblog that this round of pollution is expected to affect 10 provinces, along with the municipalities of Beijing and Tianjin, hitting as far south as Jiangsu and Anhui.

Despite the alerts, air pollution in Beijing did improve in the first half of 2016. The number of days in which air quality was rated good grew by 19 to 107 from the year before, while the number of days with heavy pollution fell by two to 14.

That was attributed to the closure of 174 heavily polluting factories, along with the switching of 463 communities from coal to alternative energy sources, the retirement of tens of thousands of cars, trucks and buses, and the addition of 6,803 vehicles running purely on electricity.

Unfortunately this has had the knock-on effect of causing mass-unemployment in some areas. 

Researchers at Germany's Max Planck institute have estimated that smog has led to 1.4 million premature deaths per year in China, while the non-profit group Berkeley Earth in California has had a higher figure - 1.6 million.

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